Over history, industrial revolutions have redefined the lives of the masses. They have changed living standards, left thousands with worthless qualifications and have shifted the economic fortunes of entire countries.
In the 21st century, we are facing another total overhaul of the way we work and do business.
The so-called third industrial revolution brought us the internet and digital technology. The fourth industrial revolution, as defined by the World Economic Forum (WEF) is characterised by “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
Computers and artificially intelligent machines are streamlining and fast-tracking everything from banking to business deals. According to the WEF, things are changing at an exponential, rather than a linear pace, and this revolution is disrupting “almost every industry in every country.”
Overseas, businesses of all sizes are reacting to this change by reshaping their goals, their methods and their workforce. Here in Australia we have been less quick to respond.
The new landscape
As mentioned by the WEF, this revolution is multi-faceted. Led by the rise of artificial intelligence, coming at us from all directions are advanced robots, the Internet of Things, self-driving cars, nanotechnology, biotechnology and the world-changing concept of quantum computing.
At a consumer level, technology is moving at an incredible rate. Companies can now automate the delivery of marketing communication to thousands of customers around the globe. They can also access big data to review and predict consumer trends and demands.
Artificial intelligence can be used to take over stock take and oversee waste reduction. Intelligent machines interact with customers, reducing the need for call centre operators and eliminating customer wait times.
Through phones, wearables and household devices, consumers can order goods, schedule appointment reminders and even transfer money. All can be done without so much as the push of a button – voice activation makes controlling your life easier than ever.
For workers, there is a real risk of jobs being rendered obsolete. However there are new roles to fill the holes. Where data entry is no longer required, data analysis takes its place. A cab company call agent, can themselves, become a driver, using Uber to connect with passengers.
The WEF predicts this revolution will improve quality of life. It is consumers who will benefit, with better, easier access to goods and services.
For businesses, it is time to sink or swim. Organisations of all sizes are faced with rising customer demands and the expectation that everything be digitally accessible.
Small business and artificial intelligence
Behemoths like Google, Apple and Samsung are investing billions in technology and artificial intelligence. As a small business it may be tempting to leave the new-fandangled stuff to the bigwigs. But you don’t have to be a revolutionary to benefit from the revolution.
The good news is these big businesses (and a lot of smaller ones) are creating solutions for use on a global scale. In many instances it is only a matter of paying a subscription or integrating software to your existing systems. Even solo operators can access newer, better ways of doing things.
For example, you can provide your customers with chatbot messengers for only a handful of dollars a month. Add AI to your website tracking and you not only have information, you have the heads up about what your customers are going to do next. Sign up for an artificially intelligent business coach and you will be notified of stock outages, reminded of overdue accounts and notified of sales opportunities.
How Australia compares
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global IT report, Australia is lagging when it comes to keeping pace the fourth industrial revolution.
Insufficient skills are the leading reason for this discrepancy. Modern IT requires developers to be well versed in multiple domains including science, engineering and NLP (Natural Language Processing), to name a few.
Other factors holding Australian businesses back include:
- Lack of B2C internet use (too few businesses offer online access to their services)
- Lack of overall technology usage (Australia is placed 22nd in the world for ICT use)
- Businesses being slow to integrate new technology and up skill their workers.
One the one hand, this is cause for concern. If we do not ramp up our digital prowess we face losing out to stronger, faster overseas competitors, particularly in the retail and manufacturing industries.
What I see, however, is opportunity. The WEF lists creativity as one of the top skills workers will need by the year 2020. Those who grasp hold of innovation and think outside the square have the advantage.
It has never been easier to start a business in Australia. If you are willing to embrace the fourth industrial revolution you have the potential to jump light years ahead of the competition.
Future proofing your business
The ice delivery man evolved into the refrigeration repair specialist and the chimney sweep became an air conditioning installer. The work you do may look different in the future but this doesn’t mean it will cease to exist.
How do you leverage the fourth industrial revolution in your favour? Embrace it.
Identify the weaknesses in your business and take some time to examine how technology can improve these shortcomings. Perhaps you could do better in terms of customer care. Maybe your inventory control is paper-based and clunky. If you calculate the ROI of an upgrade you will likely find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Don’t rule your business out of taking advantage of automation and AI just because you are small. Innovative solutions are all around you.
These are my tips to keep your business one step ahead of the competition during the fourth industrial revolution:
- Embrace change and remain flexible
- Build your business to adapt to technology
- Be willing to trial the new ‘best practice’
- Set targets and measure how technology can help you reach them
- Talk to other business owners about what is working for them
- Attend forums and conferences
- Keep an eye on industry news to find out how to use technology to grow.
Finally, regularly take a step back from the day-to-day operations of your business and review how technology can help you. By looking at the bigger picture, you can mitigate risk and come out of this incredible time of change on top.
Dale Beaumont is the founder and CEO of BRiN, the world’s first artificially intelligent business advisor. Available as a smartphone app, the company’s goal is to provide personalised education and human-like support to millions of entrepreneurs, all at the same time.